Suicides Don’t Really Spike Around the Holidays

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Filed away in your brain under Things I Heard Somewhere That Sure Sound True is likely the idea that the suicide rate increases around the holidays. It makes a certain amount of sense, after all. This is a season made for spending time with family and friends, which makes it especially painful for those who have few of either, or those who are grieving loved ones they’ve recently lost. But, as Olga Khazan at The Atlantic recently pointed out, the opposite is in fact true. 

According to the most recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate is at its lowest in December. And studies dating back to the 1980s and conducted across the globe have investigated the link between the holiday season and suicide, finding again and again that Christmas is associated with a decrease in suicide, both attempts and completion (the latter being the official term for people who both try and succeed in killing themselves).

The good news, as Khazan reports, is that after years of perpetuating the myth, there is evidence to suggest that the media is dropping this particular narrative. “An analysis by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania found that, as recently as 2013, 70 percent of news articles on suicide perpetuated the holiday myth,” she writes. “Fortunately, that trend seems to be reversing: Last year just 22 of the 47 stories written on this topic perpetuated the myth,” according to an Annenberg report published earlier this month.

So perhaps the trend has shifted from stories that support the myth to those that debunk it, which is a good thing — providing those stories don’t become too simplistic about mental health and the holidays. Because there is some evidence that mood disorders and loneliness do increase around this time of year, according to a 2011 review of the literature published in Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience. One study of college students, for example, found that the three emotions most commonly associated with Christmas were all rather sad ones: loneliness, anxiety, and helplessness.

And this may be especially true for the most vulnerable populations. A survey of 353 older adults (ages 65 to 85) in Australia found that of those who reported feeling lonely at least some of the time, 18 percent “reported greater loneliness during holiday periods.” Additionally, in a study of 55 psychiatric patients admitted during the holidays, the most common complaint listed was loneliness, followed closely by being without a family. When this group was asked to describe their feelings about the holiday season, the most commonly used word was “depressed.” 

Interestingly, that 2011 review suggested that although suicides and use of psychiatric emergency services both decrease around the holidays, there is some evidence of a “rebound phenomena” directly following the season. One study that examined the use of emergency psychiatric care in the U.K., Australia, and Nigeria found an increase in patients after Christmas and New Year’s. As the authors of one recent paper on bereaved older adults phrased it, “After the excitement and heightened social interaction associated with holidays and celebrations pass, bereaved older adults may return to their regular routines, making their solitude and loss all the more salient.” It’s a reminder of how important it is to reach out to those you care about — perhaps especially the older adults in your life, or those who have a history of mental-health problems — after the holidays, too.